I believe the strength of our faith in God can be directly measured by how often we are terrified. If you don’t get a nauseous, sinking feeling in your stomach from time to time, then maybe you are not exercising your faith enough – and you are probably not growing.
Fear is inevitably the thing that holds most of us back from reaching our potential, or from even trying. This is not really breaking news. There are volumes of self-help books devoted to this subject. When was the last time you actually took a look at your life and assessed the trade-off between indulging your fears and getting something really important accomplished?
I have come to the conclusion that fear and fulfillment often go hand in hand. I imagine there are many people, myself included, who at some point in their lives gave up on a dream because they were just too scared.
I was not raised to face my fears or to even name them, for that matter. Instead, I grew up thinking that fear and discomfort were things I should run away from. Predictably, I often ended up disappointed. My approach during my early adult years went like this: if I wanted something badly enough, I thought I should pray really hard and wait for it to happen. I honestly believed that if something was meant to be, then I really didn’t have to do anything but just wait for God to show up.
Usually nothing happened, and I would chalk it up to “not God’s will” and try to move on to something else. I was very good at over-spiritualizing my disappointments, and of course it allowed me to avoid ever having to take responsibility for anything. Now I know that I’m the one who has to show up.
When I was twenty years old, I had an intense interest in songwriting. I wanted more than anything in the world to sign a publishing contract and have some of my songs recorded by major artists. I knew it was a brutally competitive industry, but many people had told me my songs were pretty good. More importantly, I felt I was “special” and God would make a way for me without much effort on my part. Of course, now I know that there is a name for that: it’s called Delusions of Grandeur, which is basically a mental disorder.
To a trained professional, this kind of magical thinking would have been a small signal that my spiritual life was dangerously bordering on a psychotic break with reality. Never mind because, back then, all this crazy God-talk fit perfectly into my hyper-holy, spirit-filled outlook on life.
So, I entered a few songwriting contests. That was the extent of my plan. I sincerely believed God would take care of the rest. At one point it did appear as though God came through in delivering the goods on this far-fetched dream. One of the songwriting contests led to a publishing contract with an upstart publishing firm out of Los Angeles, headed up by a well-known and reputable artist. Soon I received actual correspondence with a real, live music executive and producer – a name I actually recognized from the credits on the liner notes on some of the albums I owned.
First order of business: this guy wanted me to craft my songs to sound more like the Psychedelic Furs. It was the early 80’s, after all. I got right to work.
“Thank You, God!” I said, with a combination of excitement, spiritual arrogance, and a sudden feeling of artistic superiority. I made an effort to not sound too show-offy when I told my lesser-talented friends about my “signing,” as it came to be known. They nodded enthusiastically, saying how they knew I was special all along from the moment they saw me leading the worship team at church. This served to prop up my ego for quite a while.
Unfortunately, within a matter of months, this publishing company went out of business, and that was that. The phones were disconnected. No more correspondence with a fancy LA music producer. I didn’t know what to do next.
Twenty years later, I’ll tell you what I should have done next. What I should have done was to get off my ass, pack my suitcase, move to Nashville or Los Angeles where all the action was, and try beating down the doors of some other, more established publishers and record companies for a couple of years. If it didn’t work out, then, fine. Go to Plan B, back to graduate school. Or even to plan C, which didn’t exist yet, but certainly could have been arranged. At least I would have given it a shot. But I was too afraid and intimidated by the unknown.
Instead, I figured it was the end of the road for me with music. I didn’t mention anything about this to God, because I knew we would both be embarrassed, and I wanted to spare Him the awkward conversation. The novel experience of “not getting exactly what I wanted from God just when I wanted it” didn’t fit into my theological framework at the time.
How could God set me up for such a tease, handing over something I have dreamed about for so long, and then snatching it away? Why would God do that to me? It didn’t compute. So I just kind of buried it, and went on to graduate school to do something else.
I was good at academic life. I knew how to go to lectures, study, write essays, take exams, and get really good grades. I liked the way it was already structured for me, and all I had to do was show up on campus and plug in. The only decisions I had to make were housing, a meal plan, and my choices of coursework.
But that music business thing — getting in a plane by myself and going to a big city where I had never been before, where I didn’t know anyone, and then finding a job and an apartment and meeting new friends — this I could not fathom. On top of that, the thought of actually taking initiative, making phone calls, scheduling appointments, and approaching complete strangers about doing business? Competing with other musicians who were much more talented than I was? This was terrifying to me. You might as well have asked me to jump out of a flying airplane.
Let me tell you, it is a tortuous state of being to have huge dreams and no tolerance for fear. So instead of pursuing a career in songwriting, I made the trade off to safety and comfort by doing things that were more familiar, but not necessarily aligned with my idea of God’s dream for my life at the time.
Frankly, ladies and gentlemen, to be brutally honest about it, I just didn’t have the balls. After giving this a great deal of thought over my life, I believe that’s what God is going to tell me when I stand before him at His eternal throne on Judgment Day.
Once His infinite engulfing stream of love has covered me over, so that I know I’ll be okay no matter what, He’ll look at me and say (in so many words), “Brad, you have no idea what you missed out on, because you were so afraid of so many things. Remember that music thing?” I’ll cringe and go, “No. I mean, well, Yes.” Then I’ll try to change the subject. “Hey, that’s a lovely beam of light shining over there! It’s so radiant and colorful! Is that an angel or…”
He’ll cut me right off and stare me down, forcing me to face the harsh truth about my behavior -but in a loving way, of course. I will have no choice but to face the music. “Do we have to bring that up right now?” I’ll ask. And He’ll say. “Yes, I want to talk about it. Listen, Brad, it was you, not me. You didn’t give me much to work with, you know? You had a choice, my son, and you chose to indulge your fears.”
I believe we’ll all get a little spanking on that day. And not for the things we think we should. We are all so horrified about being called out for our embarrassing sins, but what about all those times we just crapped out because we didn’t have the guts to do something that would have made a big difference in our lives or in someone else’s life? I can imagine God’s comments to the line-up of men from the various churches I’ve attended over the years – his commentary on how we all fell short of our true potential in life:
“My child, you could have accomplished tremendous things with your career! And the influence you could have had for my kingdom! But you were so timid. You held back. Why?”
“Son, you could have paid a little more attention to your wife, and at least tried to learn how to put her before yourself, but you were so self-centered and terrified of intimacy! So much love was left out. You apparently didn’t have the cajones for a real loving relationship.”
“You? You could have stooped down a bit to see other people’s points of view once in while. I hoped you would have become a little more humble, and learned to listen, but you were so insecure with your fragile little ego, that you had to be right all the time. Why were you so afraid of being vulnerable?”
And on and on.
Why shouldn’t we be scolded for holding back, being scared, and not having enough faith in God or in ourselves? I have no doubt that God wants us to face our fears head on and to courageously deal with them, whether it’s speaking in front of a crowd, taking on more responsibility at work, going out to the mission field, or standing up to a peer.
This is how you can grow, how you start to see God working in your life. If we are too caught up with the idea of being comfortable, then we’ll never know what we are capable of, what God might have in store for us.
By God’s mercy, He took me through some other circuitous routes over the next decade where I learned how to overcome my fear, false pride, and self-sabotaging behaviors. Getting married to a bold and intelligent woman was a big step in the right direction. I started attacking my fears head on by taking various assignments and jobs over the course of my career, even though I was intimidated. In the process I discovered some entirely new dreams. I still have a long ways to go. I don’t think I’ll ever be completely finished.